White citizens across the South resisted after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that “separate but equal” schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. Most resistance was futile, but Prince Edward County, Va., came up with an approach that endured.
“The white elite of Prince Edward County defied the Brown decision by closing the entire public school system and diverting public education funds into vouchers to be used at a segregated private academy that only white students could attend,” Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, writes in Dissent. “As the battles over the implementation of Brown played out, African-American students were denied access to education for five years in a row.”
As Casey explains, the story didn’t end there. Prince Edward County set the stage for the “school choice” ideology that has been embraced by President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Betsy DeVos.
Economist Milton Friedman, the intellectual father of the voucher movement, gave a nod to vouchers-for-segregation in his influential essay “The Role of Government in Education” – written in 1955, the year after the Brown decision. Friedman wrote in a footnote that he deplored discrimination and segregation but deplored “forced unsegregation” even more.
Friedman’s disciples James McGill Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter went further, trying unsuccessfully to get Virginia to abolish its public schools and establish a universal voucher system to subsidize segregated private schools. Their proposal “was written and circulated with Friedman’s support,” Casey writes.
But Prince Edward County had shown the way. By the 1960s, more than 200 “segregation academies” had opened in the South. Tens of thousands of students received public funding to attend the private schools in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The racist origin of school vouchers isn’t a new story, but it’s been getting welcome attention, arguably thanks to Trump and DeVos. Rachel Cohen shows in the American Prospect how teachers’ union officials and advocates have been telling the story in support of a pro-public-schools agenda.
In addition to reading Casey’s article, you can learn about the history from:
- Jennifer Berkshire’s interview with historian Nancy MacLean, author of the recent book “Democracy in Chains,” on the “Have You Heard” podcast.
- A Huffington Post column by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. She writes that vouchers are “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”
- A detailed, 11-page report from the Center for American Progress, which tracks the political and legal history of vouchers in the South and notes how Indiana’s voucher program increasingly benefits white, suburban, middle-class families.
Voucher advocates will say the link to segregation is ancient history and has nothing to do with the current school choice movement. It’s true that present-day voucher schools can’t bar students on the basis of race. But the rationale for school choice is often to discriminate, to surround students with others who are like them and exclude those who are different.
A Chalkbeat investigation published last week found that about 10 percent of Indiana voucher schools openly declare that LGBT students and families aren’t welcome. Those 27 schools received over $16 million from the state last year – public funding for schools that practice segregation.